15 Traits of a Terrible Leader

UPDATED: June 23, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2017

We all know you. Our hearts beat fast and our palms get sweaty when we hear your chair squeak and your door creak open. Because we know the next thing we’ll hear is footsteps. What we don’t know is where they’ll stop—we just hope it’s not at our desk.

Who are you? A horrible boss. But you don’t want to be someone everyone fears, disrespects or distrusts. So how do you change it? Step one is to be aware of the things pegging you as not-so-awesome.

We asked the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) to tell us their thoughts on what makes for a terrible leader:

Related: 5 Good Lessons From Bad Bosses

1. Lack of Transparency

Staff can tell when you’re not being completely honest with them. There’s rarely a reason not to be entirely transparent with your team, especially at a young, growing company. Your team will appreciate understanding exactly where the company stands. This will help everyone come together as a team, focused on the problems that need solving for the long-term benefit of the company. Lack of transparency can result in a lack of trust.

Mitch GordonGo Overseas

2. Not Listening

Listening to all employees as often as possible is so important to building a loyal and faithful team. Everyone needs to be part of the process and bigger picture. Interacting and listening to your team is something that is too often forgotten by CEOs, with the hustle and bustle of job and travel schedules. It shouldn’t be.

Jason GrillJGrill Media | Sock 101

3. Dismissing Ideas Other Than Your Own

I didn’t realize how toxic this behavior was until it was pointed out to me. Your employees should never feel like they’re pitching you in a way that makes you (as the CEO) think you’re spinning the gold. Understanding a good idea, helping to develop it and providing strong praise and credit where due is incredibly important.

Jeff McGregor, Dash

4. Valuing Experience Over Potential

CEOs should be careful not to value experience over potential. Some of our best employees haven’t been the most experienced. What they do have is something that’s impossible to train or develop—it’s a fire in their bellies to deliver world-class products to our clients. You can’t teach that.

Chris CancialosiGothamCulture

5. Ego

The best leaders are ones who accept blame when things go wrong and give credit to their team when things go right. In order to be a true visionary leader, you need to let go of your ego and focus on your people because without them you would be nowhere.

Nick FriedmanCollege Hunks Hauling Junk

6. Working 24/7

I asked a fellow entrepreneur about his weekend plans a few weeks ago. His answer: “I work all weekend.” I understand the ownership and passion that comes with running a business, but you have to set the example for your team, have other interests and learn how to take a break. Otherwise everyone will assume they have to work that much and burnout of the entire team is inevitable (and a toxic culture will follow).

Susan LaMotteExaqueo

7. Lack of Empathy

Leaders must understand the problems their team faces, and then begin doing anything to remove barriers to entry so their team can do the best job possible. In my experience, these barriers include a lack of resources, a lack of direction and a lack of culture.

Adam RootHiplogiq

8. Forgetting About Leadership Development

Educating and creating a growth plan for your employees is one of the things that should never be ignored but often slips through the cracks. Having a growth and education path not only increases employee retention but makes for a smarter and hungrier team. If you think about it in reverse, can you afford for your team not to learn or grow? Imagine if your marketing team was doing the same things they are now in four or five years.

Sujan Patel, When I Work

9. Being Overly Conservative

Modern leaders must be absolutely tenacious in getting the results they desire—from themselves, their organization, their team, even their customers. Get rid of overly conservative notions. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. If you don’t take that risk, you’ll never know what that opportunity would be. You’ll never have to say “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.” Use your guts, and in my experience and in the end, everything works out well.

Scott PetingaThe Scott Petinga Group

10. Permitting Negative Gossip

Spreading any sort of negative gossip about others sends a signal that it’s not safe to be around that person. Trust is immediately shattered, and people fear that what they are saying may be shared behind their backs. Leaders who either gossip or don’t take measures to eradicate it are harming more than just company morale. They are impeding the flow of honest feedback and communication throughout the organization.

David Hassell15Five

11. Poor Communication of Strategy

CEOs tend to map out ideas in our heads but don’t share the process. Then, when the team starts making suggestions that you’ve already eliminated through thoughtful internal deliberation, they get angry. But no one knows you’ve already done that—so both sides get frustrated. My co-founder would tell me this all the time, so I started writing ideas and plans out to make sure my process and conclusion are easy to understand.

Benish ShahBefore the Label

12. Closed-Mindedness

It’s crucial as a CEO to be open-minded and listen to feedback and ideas from others. Being closed-minded and unwilling to change your perspective will cause issues with both your employees and the success of your business.

Josh WeissBluegala

13. Assigning Blame

Take responsibility for any of your team’s failures. At the end of the day, you ultimately hold all the responsibility anyway, so let your team know you understand that things didn’t work out the way they should have. Then propose solutions instead of assigning blame.

Lane CampbellSyntress SCDT

14. Inconsistency

I have often been blamed for sounding like a broken record but it is a record that my staff, clients and vendors know and can count on. Too often I see CEOs who are inconsistent and change their minds, which leads to confusion and mixed signals among everyone around them. Sticking to your guns and accepting the fate (even if it’s bad!) will lead to opportunities to continue learning while building trust in others.

Kim KaupeZinePak

15. Being Too Slow to Adapt

Successful startups grow rapidly. CEOs who fail to keep up risk being clueless, close-minded and arrogant. A lack of knowledge leads to indecision and fear and can cause employees to quickly lose trust in their leader.

Neil ThanedarLabDoor

Related: 10 Quick Tips to Be a Better Boss

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprising the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Photo by Bradneathery/Twenty20

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.